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President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last Wednesday has left supporters and opponents alike wondering if he has a strategy there at all — or is just trying to split the difference between fighting and abandoning an unpopular war. Obama could stand to look at how President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, ended America’s most unpopular war of all.
Every president’s nightmare is starting another Vietnam. But the Nixon-Kissinger strategy was all about turning a nightmare into a political and military success.
They not only managed to withdraw some 500,000 Americans from Vietnam but forced the North Vietnamese enemy to sign a peace treaty recognizing a free and independent Republic of South Vietnam — while using the Vietnam war to score the biggest US diplomatic coup of the century, the opening to China.
“Allies and foes alike see Obama’s approach as less about making America strong and more about winning re-election.” — Arthur Herman
If Watergate hadn’t weakened the president’s hand and allowed a vengeful Democratic Congress to defund military aid to South Vietnam, Vietnam might have gone down as one of America’s most stunning foreign policy successes, and Nixon as its greatest strategic mastermind.
Obama has a good head start in Afghanistan, with the growing success of the Petraeus surge, as the president himself pointed out in his speech. To finish the job, he should apply three simple principles that served Nixon well:
1. Make every withdrawal deadline conditions-based. In his haste to prove he’s not George W. Bush, Obama has done just the opposite, setting timetables that make no sense operationally or strategically.
Nixon took office in January 1969 determined to make sure the North Vietnamese didn’t mistake withdrawal for retreat. He did what Obama is about to do, and pulled out 10,000 troops to show he was serious about winding down the war. But then Nixon temporarily expanded operations, from hard-hitting incursions into Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos to expanding the bombing of the North, as part of his withdrawal strategy. This kept the enemy off balance and on the defensive, and made it clear we weren’t quitting until we knew South Vietnam would be safe and secure.
2. As you shrink the US foot print, grow that of our ally. As Americans left, money and arms poured in to build up South Vietnam’s army. Yes, “Vietnamization” drew steady scorn from an anti-war media and Congress — just as they scoff at our Afghan ally today. Yet after three years, a South Vietnamese army once dismissed as hopelessly ineffective and corrupt was able, with US air and naval support, to halt the biggest Communist offensive of the entire war — the so-called Easter offensive of May 1972.
That success allowed Nixon to make his last round of troop withdrawals, while still supporting South Vietnam from the air by hitting targets in the North. A discouraged and battered Hanoi finally called it quits and signed a peace in January 1973 — almost six months after the last US combat soldier had left Vietnam.
3. Withdrawal must be part of a larger strategy. By announcing each stage of the pullout only after significant improvements on the ground, Nixon and Kissinger sent a clear message to the real powers in the region, the Soviet Union and China: No weakness here.
This saved our credibility as a superpower and even eased the opening to China in 1972, by showing Beijing that the US could be a reliable future partner who wouldn’t cut and run.
Today, we’re in danger of sending the opposite signal in Afghanistan. Allies and foes alike see Obama’s approach as less about making America strong and more about winning re-election.
The irony is that Nixon was re-elected in a landslide in 1972 in good part because of his Vietnam success — then destroyed his presidency with his missteps over Watergate. That in turn undermined his ability to see the success in Vietnam through, and forced his successor, Gerald Ford, to sit helplessly as Congress cut support for South Vietnam, guaranteeing a Communist win.
Yet none of that invalidates how Nixon turned a Vietnam withdrawal into a bigger strategic win — or the lessons a current president could draw from them, if he listened to history instead of polls.
Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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